Wired News: Government Slowly Getting Serious About Medical Error

Dragging Doctors to the Info Age

By Randy Dotinga, Wired News: 02:00 AM Jun. 18, 2004 PT

Frustrated by the hospital industry’s achingly slow adoption of basic technological safeguards, the Bush administration and Congress are gearing up to put more pressure on doctors and administrators. For perhaps a decade or more, however, millions of patients will continue to endure the high risk of deadly medical mistakes because there’s no computer to catch the errors.

U.S. hospitals are hardly as computerized as, say, the Department of Motor Vehicles or the Internal Revenue Service. Physicians can spend entire days without touching a keyboard, and nurses routinely track patients’ progress through a series of handwritten notes passed from person to person.

“It’s this huge, ridiculous game of telephone,” said surgeon Dr. Robert Wachter, co-author of a new book exploring why medical errors kill tens of thousands of Americans each year.

More potential disaster looms on the medication front, where the “chicken scratch” on prescription forms often confuses pharmacists, who end up providing the wrong drugs and, in some cases, killing people.

Enter the politicians — finally. On the federal level, members of Congress announced plans earlier this month to form a caucus to push for better hospital technology. The Bush administration is drawing praise for hiring a health information technology czar, while former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has formed a think tank devoted to exploring the challenge of equipping hospitals.

“The government has finally realized in the last month or two that unless it steps in … many people will die because of the absence of reasonable computer systems in American health care,” said Wachter, professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco and co-author of Internal Bleeding: The Truth Behind America’s Terrifying Epidemic of Medical Mistakes.

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